The Qualifier

On Sunday morning we had to get up a little earlier than the previous day because we had to check out of the hotel before we left for the beach, thankfully we could leave our suitcases at the hotel till later! 

I woke up rested and with a few nerves but SO excited to have a shot at my 6 hour qualifier! After the success of my 5km yesterday I couldn’t wait to get back in the water, 

Normally, if I get up before 8.30am I often need to sleep by 4pm but on this day I would likely still be in the water at 4pm and then I was travelling straight home so would not only need to swim for 6 hours but I would then have to travel for nearly 3 hours. When I realised this I tried to get an extra night in the hotel but sadly I was unable to so swim, then home it was!

On the way to the beach we stopped at the Captain Webb monument by the Swimmers Beach to get a photo. For those that don’t know, Captain Webb was the first person to swim the channel back 1875 when he swam from Dover to Calais in around 21 hours and 40 minutes. He ended up swimming around 40 miles because he zig zagged across the channel!

He also said one of my favourite quotes:

“Nothing great is easy”

Once we had taken a few photos we went down to the beach and were one of the first there. There were a few people attempting their 6 hour qualifier as well as some relay swimmers doing their qualifiers, which is at least 1.5 hours swim then leave the water for a minimum of 1 hour and a maximum of 1.5 hours – then return to the water and swim for 1 more hour in open water. Both the qualification swims must take place at 16° or under in nothing more than a swimming costume/trunks, swim hat and goggles. As a result, it was a big an important day for many people; not just me!

Another person that had done their qualifier the previous day was Camilla who is swimming in a relay for SwimTayka UK. Their mission is to give disadvantaged communities around the world access to swimming teachers who can provide the life skills of swimming and create a legacy for toady’s children, who will grow up to teach the next generation.

I signed in for the 3rd and final time of the weekend and let the guys on shore know what I wanted to do in terms of feeding during my swim. My plan, 2 hours swim and then alternate warm and cold feeds each hour. I got changed and my sister plastered me with yet another layer of sun cream since the UV rating was high and I would have no protection and I then had the wonderful Sarah come and grease me up….

I must say, it was a new experience. The previous day I just put a bit of Vaseline on myself and my costume had rubbed a little but not a great deal, however, the day before I had only swum for 2 hours, I was going to be swimming for 6. The only way I can describe it was the volunteer wearing a blue latex glove wandered up onto the prom carrying a white bucket of some sort of Vaseline and started smearing it on round my neck, shoulders and swimming costume straps. I then made the error of pushing myself in my chair to the slipway and in the process managed to get both the suncream and grease all over my wheelchair back rest – definitely something I was looking forward to when I got out, not.

My sister wished me luck and helped me get into the water. It was straight down to business, no faffing, no pausing to adjust my hat and goggles just head down and focused on the job in hand. Well, almost…I overheard one of the volunteers telling someone that hadn’t been before that they should swim to the line of yellow ducks and follow it up to the red buoy, at which point I HAD to see these ducks and wondered how the hell I had missed them the day before. This meant that rather than setting off and swimming straight to the red buoy I actually swam parallel to the beach for a while. I cannot begin to explain my disappointment when I got to the row of yellow things and discovered they were just small yellow balls/buoys on a lane rope. 

After that it was down to business! 

I followed the yellow rope to the first buoy and got my first taste of the waves and wind and what the delights the sea may have in store for me on that day. The conditions were pretty good, the waves fairly consistent and regular, there was definitely a pattern to them unlike the previous day which made swimming much easier. Each lap was approximately 2km and I completed the first in dead on 30min, which set my standard going forwards for the day. After my first lap I had really settled into a nice rhythm and was having a great time. My sister had stayed to watch for a bit and managed to get some photos of me because she could tell my stroke apart from everyone else’s, even from a distance! After a few laps the ferries turning were becoming more regular and the water was becoming more unpredictable, I still felt comfortable and was having a wonderful day but it was a sign of what was to come, it was also then that I somehow was stopped by Camilla and she said hi; ive no clue how on earth she figured out it was me next to her! 

After 3 and a half laps it was edging near to my first feed, so I headed to shore and was given a cup of what I now know was warm Chocolate Flavoured UCAN and It was actually really nice and I felt the boost it gave me, I told myself to ask what it was when I got out. My sister also got me my pain medication to keep it at a tolerable level. Off I went for the next hour, this time instead of just going round the last buoy I decided to swim to the harbour wall to make my lap slightly larger and turn it into a bit more of a rectangle, the result being that a lap and a half was, from then on consistently taking me an hour, meaning that I was opposite the part of the beach where I was feeding from at the right time. 

My second feed was 250ml of Mango and Passionfruit Lucozade and I decided then and there that I wouldn’t use it again, salty mango and passionfruit just doesn’t taste good, it left a horrible taste in my mouth for the following hour.

It was on this lap (hour 4) that the waves started to pick up and I noticed there were much fewer swimmers in the water, there was a bitterly cold wind causing sea spray and we were swimming into it, on top of that there was a ferry parked and another turning round so the waves being created were coming over my head – it actually ended up being easier to go through them rather than over them! It was also the lap when I saw my first jellyfish of the swim, it was tiny and like the ones I had seen the day before. As a result of the seaspray I had decided to start breathing every 5 and after I had taken a breath and put my face back in the water I had a jellyfish, similar to the size of those in the middle of the channel last year right in front of my face! Thankfully I managed to swerve round it but it did catch my arm which was a bit annoying, I told it off though so it was all ok!

Hour 5, even fewer people in the water and by this point I had resorted to keeping myself entertained by seeing if I could see something beginning with every letter of the alphabet, I got to G and gave up. It didn’t help that my watch kept turning off too. Instead I started planning and writing my blog in my head, that and singing songs to myself, it was also the first time I had started to feel a bit cold, not hugely but I knew the cold was there; if that makes sense. I was supposed to have lucozade again at this feed but instead I asked for some warm UCAN again and felt much better afterwards. My sister was there on this feed to give me some support but also my next pain medication. I said to the people on shore that I was starting to feel the cold a bit and that there were weirdly 2 warm patches so for the last hour I swam backwards and forwards between the 2 warm patches and it was actually quite nice to just swim back and forwards after swimming in giant circles/rectangles all day! At this point I couldn’t see any other swimmers, but I knew there were a couple out there still. I ended up being the 2nd to last one to shore but there were still several people at the beach and all the support crew ran over to the slipway and cheered and clapped as I got out of the water! I was absolutely thrilled, I’d done it; the final required step before I am allowed to take on the English Channel!

One of the volunteers had gone knee deep into the water to give me one of my crutches as I was struggling to stand. I used the crutch and wall to steady myself, but the shingle made it incredibly difficult. My sister gave me a hand and I eventually got out of the water and to the point that the wall was low enough for me to sit on. I sat down and put my shoes on for extra grip and was just trying to take everything in, 6 hours, that alone is a huge achievement for me! One of the volunteers put my poncho on me to try and warm me up a bit and I walked sideways up the beach holding onto the wall. It took a while and was especially tricky because I still felt like I was rocking and being thrown around by the waves in the sea. When I finally made it up high enough to get to my wheelchair I collapsed into a heap into my chair and the idea of moving anywhere from that point on was horrific, however, I knew we needed to travel home that evening. My sister pushed me up the rest of the slipway and over to all my stuff so I could get changed. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat but my arms ached and I felt a little sea sick. 

Whilst I was getting changed my sister took my swim assessment form to the person that needed to sign it off for me, when I got it back there was definetly a little cheer from me and a hug from my sister too! We packed all my stuff away, I put my dryrobe on to warm up and we said our goodbyes. We had to go back to the Travelodge to get our suitcases and decided that we might as well get dinner whilst we were there; I was starving. I kept getting people looking at me and couldn’t work out why, I then realised I was eating a cheese and bacon burger, chips and onion rings holding a mug of hot chocolate with a bobble hat on and my Dryrobe on with the hood up….I looked like a complete weirdo, especially as it was sunny outside!

We finished dinner, grabbed our stuff and walked to the train station and thankfully both my sister and I were on the same train to get to London. It was very busy so I had to stay in my wheelchair but my sister did get a seat. I completely crashed and fell asleep; I don’t remember much till we got to London. We walked to Kings Cross for my last train of the day and my sister went off to get her train home. It wasn’t a pleasant journey, there were lots of drunk football fans shouting and drinking. I eventually got off the train around 10pm and headed home, it was totally dark so I stuck to the main roads but could feel my suitcase wheel wobbling. It was when I was about 20m away from my front door that it snapped off and my suitcase fell over; thankfully I could just about carry it that far!

Finally, home I dumped stuff, went to bed and fell sound asleep.

An exhausting, painful, difficult weekend but one filled with joy, laughter, smiles, swimming and friends. Whats more is I can finally make my solo channel application green with the word ‘complete’ rather than the red ‘pending’ text!

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